The South has always had forgotten people. Lowest of the poor, they survive beneath the spreading Sunbelt economy. Some cut wood to haul to the big papermills, which pay by the load. Many others tenant-farm, or work in fields for low hourly wages, tied to rhythms of the soil, their fates ruled by a feudal logic, little changed by civil rights legislation.
In rich agricultural pockets of the Gulf South, remnants of the antebellum era seem caught in time. The Big House is surrounded by rows and rows of crops. Constellations of tiny, weather-worn shacks and shanties, with too many people inside, dot the landscape as they did in slave days. On many plantations, they are still called "the quarters," as they were more than a century ago.
The mechanization of farm work has displaced numbers of the landless poor, but those who have remained through generations are often semiliterate, politically weak, and dependent on the public wealth in months between planting and harvests. Many live in substandard houses, owned by the rich planters who employ them. Mostly, these poor people are black.
The work is physically hard -- and often dangerous. That was the first discovery made by Patsy Sims, a reporter who late in 1972 began researching a series for the New Orleans States-Item. She arrived at the quarters of a sugar plantation in South Louisiana the day a man named Cleveland Benjamin was crushed to death under a tractor. She also met a man whose legs had been burned in another accident, and amputated just below the waist.
"Cleveland Benjamin's Dead!" is the elegantly taut chronicle of what happened to cane workers and their families between 1972 and 1978: their lawsuit with the Department of Agriculture and growers, for better wages; the priests and nuns who assisted them; the backlash from planters, several of whom are profiled; legal work done by the Washington public interest firm Hogan and Hartson. The newspaper series, which exposed the deplorable living conditions of these cane workers, became evidentiary material at hearings held in Louisiana by visiting agriculture officials.
To her credit, Sims did not write herself into the book. In explaining how she wrote the series and its sizable impact on the landed gentry, the author injects no soul-searching or impassioned polemics about an obviously unjust chain of events. Instead, she lets the short profiles of the pickers and growers tell the story, with brief reportorial interludes about the progress of the suit and subsequent hearings. She is admirably fair to people others might simply have cast as villains.
The book is edited like a documentary film, with crisp shiftings of scene, and Mitchel Osborne's excellent images strengthen the tone and rhythm of the prose. Sims' narrative is distinguished by her talent for portraiture. The people are alive, as different as their social stations, and the dialect, which can create problems when transferred to print from taped interviews, isn't strenuous to read. Not least is her ability to cast settings. Here is a late passage, after she returns to Louisiana from her new home in Pennsylvania. The cane workers have won the rate increase, but we learn that they paid dearly for it:
"Little remained of the shack. Just the shell with even more cracks and cobwebs than when the photographer and I had first visited Moses West. Across the highway, the cane grew tall, but now there was nothing to hide. The shack that had been next to the Wests' was gone, replaced only by weeds. And Moses West's would soon disappear also. Its guts were gone and so were the lumpy mattresses, the remnants of the platform rockers and garbage cans on the rotting front porch, and, with them, Moses, his wife, and their three children. The only reminders of the retired sugarcane worker and his family were an empty Dr. Pepper bottle, a pair of jockey shorts hanging on a rusty nail, and this epitaph crudely scrawled across the door: J.C.W. WAS HERE AND WILL NOT BE BACK HERE."
The book has one major flaw: its ending. Sims is unclear as to how many workers were "retired." We learn that two leaders of the cane pickers were ousted by planters, but moved on to better jobs. A final visit with one family is moving, but the conclusion is too impressionistic. A few pages of straight journalism would bring it all together -- prospects for future wage disputes, the federal government's role today, reform realities, a statistical breakdown. Should it go into paperback, these spaces could easily be filled, and make "Cleveland Benjamin's Dead!" not just a good book, but a superb one.